The Elephants of Victoria Falls
May 31 2016

Zimbabwe’s Zambezi National Park lies on the southern banks of the Zambezi River, just before it tumbles over the magnificent Victoria Falls.  On the northern bank, in Zambia, lies the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. 

Each year, around April or May, the Mosi-oa Tunya NP starts to receive an influx of elephants.  Numbers peak in August, before they seemingly disappear again before the rains come again in November.  The migration coincides well with the dropping water levels of the River as the dry season takes hold, clearly suggesting the elephants are crossing from Zimbabwe to Zambia – using the many islands close to the Falls as stepping stones.  It tends to be the larger males that arrive first, and this makes sense as the breeding herds, with their young calves, will likely have to wait for the River flow to subside a little more before they can safely swim across. 

Once in Zambia, the elephants enter into considerable conflict with communities; raiding farms and sometimes damaging buildings and threatening life.  Being a human-dominated landscape the potential for conflict is great.  Understanding elephants’ use of land, both within and outside of protected areas, is seen as increasingly important to future conservation management of African elephant populations.

Whilst elephants are known to range throughout the Zambezi National Park, little was known about the ranging behaviour on the Zambian side.  So, last year an occupancy survey was undertaken to establish how far beyond the National Park’s boundary the elephants move, suggesting an area in which to focus our future research efforts.  This wider area incorporates the National Park, but also forests, towns and villages, as well as small scale and commercial farming land.  The results of the survey are currently being peer-reviewed for an academic journal, but are already guiding the next phase in our research.   

In May, this next phase of ALERT’s elephant programme got underway, on both sides of the River.  Whilst the ultimate aim is to assist in managing the human / elephant conflict, the first step is to understand the elephants’ behaviour.  To that end ALERT, in partnership with the Zambian and Zimbabwean Departments of National Parks & Wildlife, the Zambian Forestry Department, and the Universities of Copperbelt, Coventry and Western Kentucky, started work.

Our focus initially is to create ID kits for individual elephants and herds, gain a better understanding of the elephants’ movements both across the River, and around the Livingstone area, and to highlight areas of highest conflict.  In the two short weeks since the programme started, we have already made good progress. 

By lunch time on the very first day of research, we had already discovered more elephants in the Park than the number quoted by the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group that was derived from previous aerial surveys.  We have made good progress in identifying herds and individuals, and creating detailed ID kits for them to help track the movements of herds around the area. 

We have identified several likely migration and local movement corridors, and have commenced a survey of dung piles to establish dung decay rates – an important variable in calculating a total population during dung transect surveys that will be undertaken later.

One potentially important finding is that an elephant observed in Zambia earlier in the month was then spotted again by our team in Zimbabwe in the Zambezi National Park.  This suggests that individual elephants may cross back and forth throughout the dry season, with implications for methods used in determining overall population size, and the necessity of cross-border co-operation in managing this elephant population.  

This elephant was observed by our research team on both sides of the Zambezi River

Things are just getting going here on this long term project, and we are looking for your support to help.  We are seeking donations to be able to collar some elephants to gain a better understanding of their movements year round.  Secondly, we are looking for people keen to join the programme and help with data collection.  If you have a couple of weeks to spare, sign up here.   

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